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Despite promising portents during Ana’s Stuttgart loss to Radwanska, we were unprepared for the implausibly sudden awakening of Serbia’s Sleeping Beauty.  For us, the most remarkable moment in her eye-opening win over Dementieva was not her 27-minute first-set rampage over the Olympic gold medallist, nor was it her stabilized serve, her fearless forehand, or her improved mobility, which allowed her to prolong several points until the Russian donated an unforced error.  While all of these factors augur well for the coming weeks, we were most impressed by the sequence of events in the last few minutes of the match, decided by a tension-ridden tiebreak.  One might argue that Ivanovic had relatively little at stake in a second-set tiebreak having won the first set, but we suspect that Dementieva would have eked out the victory had she forced a final set.  Serving at 4-5 in the tiebreak, the Serb cracked a sizzling serve down the center that was called just wide; the umpire descended to investigate while Ivanovic peered anxiously across the net.  When Ana received the bad news, a protracted argument ensued during which she looked increasingly distraught.  (As far as we could discern, the call looked correct, so we’re not faulting the umpire.)  Here, one sensed, was the latest meltdown moment of the brand that has characterized the Serb’s slump.  A double fault or netted forehand would follow, after which Dementieva soon would win the tiebreak and comfortably cruise through the deciding set…

In fact, she didn’t win another point.  Following a key pause during which she regained her composure, Ana delivered a careful second serve and calmly played her way into a neutral baseline rally that ended with an unforced error from her opponent.  At 5-5, the Serb crushed an explosive service winner down the T to arrive at match point.  When Dementieva intelligently aimed a first serve towards Ana’s weaker wing, the backhand, she refrained from running around the shot and blasting an all-or-nothing forehand return over the high part of the net, a tactic with which she has attempted to end pivotal points quickly during her slump.  Instead, Ivanovic replied with a high-percentage crosscourt backhand, patiently prepared to start a rally, and then watched with a mixture of disbelief and elation as the Russian rashly sprayed a backhand wide.  By playing tactically and technically sound tennis under pressure, Ana had achieved one of her most significant victories since her championship run at Roland Garros two years ago.  

Without erasing the questionable call from her mind, however, this accomplishment would not have occurred.  Among the central attributes of top players is their ability to play each point independently, forcing themselves to forget the adversity of moments before.  The art of amnesia will assist Ivanovic in the challenge of rediscovering herself as much as will serves and forehands.  Will she win the tournament?  No.  Will she survive Petrova?  Maybe not.  The 14th seed enjoys a glittering clay resume, will be more rested, has won their last two meetings (the overall head-to-head stands level at four), and  has profited from a fresh start with a new coach, much like Ivanovic.  Even if Ana’s Rome run ends on Thursday, though, she’ll leave the Eternal City infused with invaluable confidence for the future.

Back to more prosaic matters with a glimpse at the other three quarterfinals:

S. Williams (1) vs. Kirilenko:  The world #1 has won her first two matches at this event, which is two more than she won during her entire Roland Garros preparation last year.  As one would expect after an extended absence, she hasn’t bludgeoned her opponents into submission, escaping set points in the first round and dropping a set in the second round. Kirilenko wouldn’t be able to test Serena on a fast surface, but the glamorous Russian could trouble her on clay if the American suffers erratic spells.  Somewhat returning to the conversation after a strong Australian performance, “the other Maria” outlasted Kuznetsova and Cibulkova in three-setters this week.  Serena knows the answers to the questions that Kirilenko will pose; nevertheless, she’ll need to concentrate a bit in order to remember them.  Pick:  Serena.

V. Williams (4) vs. Jankovic (7):  After a slightly surprising struggle with Mattek-Sands, Jankovic comfortably dispatched a weary Wickmayer in the third round.  On the other side, Venus’ knee issues apparently have abated since Miami, judging by routine wins over Schnyder and the recently revived Peer.  All signs suggest a highly competitive quarterfinal clash between two top-10 players who not only have split their ten previous meetings but have played nine consecutive three-setters against each other.  In six of those nine clashes–including both of their Rome matches–the player who won the first set lost the match, so don’t tune out no matter how dominant someone seems early.  Her consistency challenged by the slower surface, Venus has struggled to hit the extra shots necessary to put away Jelena on clay, while the Serb has twice won this title (2007 and 2008).  Unless she suffers from her wrist injury or Venus enjoys a sensational serving day, Jankovic should continue her sequence of spring successes against the elder Williams sister.  But expect plenty of drama first.  Pick:  Jankovic.

Safarova vs. Martinez Sanchez:  Parallels abound between these two surprise quarterfinalists.  Both are streaky, slightly eccentric lefties who prefer to play short points and struggle when thrust onto the defensive.  Both wobbled through a three-setter against a relatively unimposing opponent in the first round (Govortsova for Safarova, Kudryavtseva for Martinez Sanchez).  Both thrashed an Italian Fed Cup heroine in the second round (Pennetta for Safarova, Schiavone for Martinez Sanchez).  Both upset a top-10 player from the WTA’s cluster of rising stars (Radwanska for Safarova, Wozniacki for Martinez Sanchez).  Both will advance to the semifinals…ahem, no.  We’d give MJMS a slight edge because of Safarova’s taxing third-set tiebreak triumph on Wednesday, but the Czech is the better player overall.  Pick:  Safarova, by a whisker.

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We’ll see you again for the semifinal preview.  Ciao for now, but remember to keep those ajdes coming!

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